Vancouver, British Columbia

The last place that I was visiting with my family on this trip was the city of Vancouver and the surrounding coastal region of British Columbia. Vancouver had a downtown population a little bit higher than 600,000 and a greater metropolitan area population of 2.5 million at the time of writing, making it the third-largest city in Canada behind Toronto and Montreal. It's by far the largest city along the Pacific coast of Canada, dwarfing Victoria at almost ten times the inhabitants. Vancouver is known for its ethnic and linguistic diversity, with one of the oldest Chinatowns of any city in North America and a modern population drawn from all over the world. Like Victoria, Vancouver is also typically ranked as one of the best cities in the world to live in, with a pleasant (if rainy) climate paired together with top-rate economic opportunities and cultural institutions. None of us had ever visited Vancouver before, and we were eager to have a chance to tour some of the attractions in this seaside metropolis.

In order to reach the city of Vancouver on the mainland, we had to board another ferry boat. This one didn't leave directly from the harbor in Victoria, instead launching from a more industrialized docking area in the little town of Swartz Bay to the northeast. While this distance is relatively short by air at only about 70 miles / 115 kilometers, the need to cross over water the whole way meant that it took a few hours to travel via boat. After loading up our car on the nondescript ferry boat, we were free to enjoy the passage back to the mainland. The ferry ventured past a series of picturesque small islands lying in the Straight of Georgia between Vancouver Island and British Columbia. These islands were densely forested aside from a handful of houses perched against the shoreline. These vacation getaway homes looked to be very expensive indeed, given the difficulty of reaching these exclusive destinations. The channel of water between Galiano Island on the left and Mayne Island on the right was particularly narrow, only a few hundred feet at the closest point, and the houses on the shore were almost close enough to reach out and touch them. The nearby scenery on these little islands made this one of the more enjoyable ferry trips, certainly more interesting than the unbroken passage from Port Angeles to Victoria a few days earlier.

Our first destination upon arriving in Vancouver was Stanley Park. This famous park is located at the end of a peninsula at the northwest corner of the city, surrounded on nearly all sides by water. At 1.5 square miles in size, Stanley Park is one of the largest urban green spaces in North America. Vancouver's city planners had the foresight to set aside this land early in the history of the city's development and it remains mostly untouched by human hands. Some of the trees in the center of the park can grow as tall as 250 feet / 75 meters and are hundreds of years old. Stanley Park attracts millions of visitors every year from both the residents of Vancouver and tourists like us. It's full of walking trails, recreational sports grounds, and quiet spaces to escape from the hustle of city life. This was the only attraction in Vancouver that I knew about before visiting the city, and it was the place that we went to investigate first.

My family loves to ride bikes, and we decided to rent some and ride them around the edge of the park. There's a walking and biking trail that traces along the outer edge of the park for about 5 miles / 8 kilometers, and we thought that this would provide lots of opportunities to see both Stanley Park and the wider city of Vancouver. These initial pictures were taken at the southern side of the park, looking across the waters of Coal Harbor towards the high rise buildings in Vancouver's downtown. I was amused at the floating Chevron station out in the harbor, a seaborne refueling station for private boats docked nearby.

We pedaled in a counterclockwise direction around the edge of Stanley Park, taking in more of the sights looking out across the water. At the eastern edge of the park, we were able to look further off in the same direction towards the broadest part of Vancouver's harbor. As we continued along, we came into view of North Vancouver on the other side, and the distant form of Lions Gate Bridge spanning over the water. North Vancouver rises quickly from the harbor in a series of steep hills, and the low-lying clouds seemed to be touching the upper reaches of those hills. It was a bit of a depressing day although the rain was holding off for the moment. Elsewhere, we stopped to see some of the totem pole artwork of the local First Nations peoples, done in the same style as the artifacts on display at the Royal BC Museum back in Victoria. This is one of the highlights of the park and it was much more crowded with visitors than the rest of the park's circumference. I liked the use of the same consistent colors on these totem poles: mostly white, orange, green, and brown with a few splashes of bright red and yellow thrown in. As I've mentioned before, this is one of the most distinctive styles of art anywhere in the world and a fitting symbol for the Pacific Northwest.

Stanley Park was also in active use for a number of sporting activities. We first came across two teams playing an organized match of cricket, one of the most popular sports in the British Commonwealth but generally without too much of a following in Canada. The players seemed to mostly drawn from Vancouver's South Asian community, which made sense given the intense passion for the game in India and Pakistan. The batters on the orange team were sitting at 43 runs for 1 wicket according to the picture of the scoreboard that I took, a decent if not great result thus far. Elsewhere, there was a tennis competition taking place at the courts on the southern edge of the park. This was apparently the Stanley Park Open, a professional event with a modest prize pool too small to attract any real stars. Everyone out on the courts was much, much better than my own tennis skills though, and it was entertaining to watch them for a bit. Finally, we also came across a group playing bocce ball on a gorgeously flat grassy surface. I've never played bocce before and it looked like a lot of fun, as well as being something that even older invididuals can partake in.

The northern side of Stanley Park was a bit wilder and closer to nature. We crossed underneath the Lions Gate Bridge and followed the seawall along the western edge of the park. The shoreline here was rocky and we were apparently biking at low tide, which exposed an expanse of mud stretching out into the harbor. There were a number of underwater seaweed plants growing here that the flies went after with gusto now that they had been removed from the water, and the whole thing smelled pretty terrible. It was not a particularly attractive site. Further along, we reached the swimming area known as Third Beach, and once again there was virtually no one out there swimming in the water. Only a couple of young kids were even sitting on the beach's logs in swimsuits. It was all pretty though, in a kind of stark fashion, between the cloudy skies and the dense greenery in the park and the rocky, muddy sands of the shoreline. This felt like a more authentic experience of what it's like to live along the Pacific coast for most of the year.

After finishing the circuit of Stanley Park, we stayed on the bikes for a little while longer and pedaled east through the downtown portion of Vancouver over to the Gastown district. I don't have any pictures of that ride since we were doing our best to navigate heavy traffic without being hit. The Gastown portion of Vancouver is the oldest part of the city, founded in the 1860s and 1870s to service the shipping industry that came into the harbor and, eventually, the Canadian-Pacific Railway which termined nearby starting in 1886. This was an area of warehouses and saloons designed to cater to the merchants and sailors who came to Vancouver as part of the timber logging industry. Gastown is named after "Gassy" Jack Deighton, founder of the first saloon in town and the subject of the statue depicted above. For better or for worse, the city's early residents decided to go with the name of "Vancouver" after the explorer rather than the more amusing "Gastown" as the settlement continued to grow.

Gastown today is a trendy, touristy area full of restaurants, cafes, and shopping. It's a neat place to walk around and explore for a few hours, as well as a great place to eat lunch or dinner. The most famous attraction in Gastown is the steam-powered clock pictured above; it shoots out puffs of steam periodically from the top of the device. Although it looks like a historic device dating back into Gastown's history, the clock actually dates only from 1977. This is not stated anywhere on the site and the city of Vancouver seems happy to let tourists misunderstand the true age of the clock.

This was the most interesting of the stores that we visited in Gastown, a souvenir place selling these First Nations-themed art pieces. I loved that wall piece with the vibrant red and blue colors, which would have made a fantastic decorative element for my apartment. Unfortunately, it cost about two thousand dollars (in 2012 money) and that wasn't happening on a graduate student's salary.

Gastown is also located right next to Vancouver's Chinatown district. This is one of the oldest Chinese communities in North America, and I saw the area jokingly referred to as "Hongcouver" due to the large number of immigrants from the former British colony in Hong Kong. I would have loved to have eaten lunch here, but my parents somewhat inexplicably do not like Chinese food and we went elsewhere in Gastown for a more generic American-themed meal. That was a disappointment.

On the way back to turn in our bike rentals at Stanley Park, we followed along the northern coastline of Vancouver's downtown and stopped at what's known as "Canada Place." This is the home of the city's convention center as well as the docking location for the cruise ships that come to Vancouver. There were several cruise ships in port when we visited, and it was amazing to see just how large they were. The scale of these ships is nothing less than fantastic, stretching for hundreds of feet in length and approaching the height of a skyscraper. The largest of these cruise ships must have had a dozen different decks, and I suspect that several of these ships were about the same size as the famous Titanic if not bigger. I've never taken a cruise before since I prefer to plan out my own trips, but it might be worth it at some point just to experience traveling on one of these monstrosities.

Canada Place also held the Olympic Cauldron from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. I remember this weird-looking sculpture from the opening ceremonies back in 2010, looking something like a series of crystal shards leaning together to prop up the Olympic flame. The city has chosen a wonderful location for the Olympic Cauldron, high up in the air on a pier stretching out into the harbor, with gorgeous views of North Vancouver and the mountains beyond it forming a backdrop in the distance. I did find it a bit strange that the cauldron was unlit, however, with a small plaque explaning that a flame is lit only for special occasions. Why not keep the flame burning at all times? I can't imagine that it would be that expensive to maintain the torch as an eternal flame. The beaty of this location was therefore slightly marred by seeing the Olympic Cauldron but not an active fire burning inside it.

For our last destination of the day, we returned the bicycles and drove in the rental car to Granville Island. This is a shopping district in Vancouver situated to the south of the downtown, and somewhat interestingly to be found underneath the Granville Street Bridge. Much like Gastown, Granville Island is a touristy area that features a great deal of shopping and places to eat. The most famous attraction here is the public market, containing a farmer's market, day vendors, and artists offering local Vancouver goods. It's similar to Pike Place Market in Seattle, trading a smaller size than its southern cousin for a more distinctive location along the water. Granville Island's market can't claim the same historic legacy either, as this particular marketplace only dates back to 1979. We arrived when the market was getting ready to close for the day, with a lot of the individual retailers beginning to pack up their produce and meats. As at most farmer's markets, there was no shortage of delicious food to be bought here.

We closed out the day by getting dinner at Granville Island and walking along its small waterfront. Granville Island is not particularly large and the path that runs along the water's edge is easily walkable. These pictures were taken looking north across the short body of water to Vancouver's downtown where we had been earlier in the day. The green expanse of Stanley Park can just be seen on the left side of the first picture off in the distance. This whole area was full of hundreds of little privately owned boats, and there were lots of highrise apartment buildings in the area where some of the boat owners presumably lived. All in all, Granville Island did nothing to dispel Vancouver's reputation of being one of the best cities in the world to live in. This seemed like a very pleasant area to choose for a home.

The next morning we hopped back into the rental car and drove north into the mountains to visit the resort town of Whistler. This skiing region is located about 75 miles / 120 kilometers to the north of downtown Vancouver, and Whistler is probably most famous for hosting a bunch of the skiing events at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Sure enough, the signs entering the area proudly called attention to the Whistler Olympic Park and the Olympic logo with the five interlocking rings could be found everywhere in the area. Whistler town was the initial site that first greeted us, an upscale collection of ski lodges, restaurants, and fashion boutiques that cleared catered to the well-to-do crowd. Whistler is an expensive place to stay. In the winter, everything would be given over to skiing and snowboarding on the slopes of the surrounding mountains, with the Whistler Blackcomb resort being one of the most famous in North America. In the summer everything was instead green and warm, with the skiing trails converted over for use by hikers and mountain bikers. It was still a very pretty location, just of a different sort.

This was the focal point of Whistler's town, the Olympic Plaza. It was a green open space set aside in the middle of the trendy area, given over to public concerts and festivals. At the moment, the Olympic Plaza was mostly empty aside from a few other tourists wandering around and taking pictures near the huge version of the Olympic rings. The mountains in the background gave this place a dramatic cast and Whistler sits at a high enough elevation that it was noticeably cooler here as compared to Vancouver. In an interesting coincidence, the stage at the Olympic Plaza had two big televisions set up in the corners, which were showing... the Olympics.

Yes, this trip to Vancouver was taking place at the same time that the Olympics were ongoing in London. It was a weird feeling to be watching the 2012 Olympics live on TV from the exact location of the 2010 Olympics. The fact that we were visiting a famous ski resort only to see beach volleyball on the live broadcast only made it all that much more disorienting. What an unusual situation.

Near the Olympic Plaza was the gathering area pictured above, the base of the chair lifts that take visitors up to the top of Whistler Mountain. This seemed to be the hub of activity in Whistler, with lots of people gathered to ride the chair lifts up to the top. There were a surprising number of mountain bikers here, queued up with their bikes for a ride down to the bottom. The same slopes and jumps used for skiiers and snowboarders in the winter were now covered with dirt and used for doing tricks on bikes. It looked like fun if I were skilled enough to avoid killing myself. Most of the other gondolas and chair lifts were closed for the summer, with only three of the fourteen total lifts owned by the resort in operation. We would have liked to ride up to the top to experience some of the amazing views of the surrounding mountains from up at the summit of Whistler. However, we still needed to make it all the way back down to Seattle that evening for the Mariners baseball game, and there wasn't enough time to do the trip up to the peak and back again. (The very high cost of the lift ticket was also a bit of a discouragement.) As a result, I was able to visit Whistler but not make it up to the top of the mountain on this trip. Perhaps on another visit someday.

We did have another destination in mind to visit before leaving British Columbia. This was the Capilano Suspension Bridge located a short distance to the north of Vancouver in the city's immediate suburbs, a long suspension bridge located amidst impressive natural scenery. When we were driving down from Whistler, the sky began to look more and more ominous, and we were concerned about rain. It wasn't just the prospect of getting wet but also the fear that the inclement weather might affect the Mariners game that evening. At least their stadium had a retractable roof which meant that it would be played regardless of rain.

By the time that we arrived, the skies had opened up with a full force downpour. It was raining cats and dogs outside as the old saying goes, and there was no way that we would be able to see the suspension bridge without getting soaked. While this was pretty annoying, we had enjoyed fantastic weather throughout the trip thus far and couldn't fairly complain about having a single rainy day. Besides, what would be the point of visiting the Pacific Northwest without experiencing some soggy weather? That's what the whole area is known for, after all.

The Capilano Suspension Bridge was surprisingly crowded despite the terrible rain pouring down. There was another display of the same kind of totem pole artwork from local First Nations groups here, although not maintained as well as the similar pieces in Stanley Park. The actual bridge itself was a long and delicate feat of engineering work, stretching some 460 feet / 140 meters from end to end above a gorge below. It was a long drop to the bottom down there, and a small handful of visitors have fallen to their deaths in the canyon below over the years. (In all cases, the individuals were either using hallucinogenic drugs or deliberately climbed over the tall, sturdy railing of their own account - the bridge is quite safe.) The suspension bridge had a significant sway to it and this would not be the place to bring anyone who had a fear of heights. On this rainy, misty day it felt like we were flying through the treetops of the forest.

On the other side of the suspension bridge was an area known as the "Treetops Adventure" in the terminology of the group running this place. It consisted of a series of wooden platforms and bridges running through the trees at a height of roughly 30 feet / 10 meters above the forest floor. The staff guides stressed that the whole thing had been built without the use of any nails whatsoever, leaving the trees themselves completely undamaged. It was another impressive feat of engineering and reminded me of the Ewok village from Star Wars with all of the ropes and the surrounding trees. However, it was a little hard to appreciate everything because of how hard it was raining at the time. There was an animal handler underneath the treetop rope bridges with a hawk on her arm, and the poor bird looked absolutely miserable in the weather. A lot of the pictures from this stop came out a bit blurry for the same reason; it was genuinely difficult to see much of anything more than a short distance away.

Back on the near side of the suspension bridge again, we finished up our stop here by visiting the newest attraction at Capilano, the cliff walk. A spiraling set of wooden stairs took visitors down to a narrow pathway that jutted out from the side of a nearby cliff. Instead of a suspension bridge that arched out from one side of the gorge to the other, this path simply hung out from the cliffside with nothing apparently holding it up. Not the best place for those with a fear of heights, but a great spot for anyone else. The views from the cliff walk over to the suspension bridge were particularly impressive, capturing the immense trees on all sides with the tiny little bridge seemingly floating between them. I was amused to find that the theme of the cliff walk was "water", an appropriate choice on a day like this. There were a series of signs talking about the importance of fresh water, and a demonstration of what 15 years, 25 years, and 50 years of water erosion can do to carve out a passage through solid rock. After finishing up with the short cliff walk, we headed into the well-stocked Capilano gift store to dry out a bit before returning to the rental car. Even with the sodden weather, this was a great place to visit.

From there, we drove back down to Seattle and caught the Mariners game detailed on the Seattle page of this travel blog. My family then returned back to Baltimore the next day, while I rented a new car and headed back into Canada again to visit the national parks in the Canadian Rockies. That was another incredible trip which will be posted on this website soon if it hasn't already been added by the time that you read this. As for the Pacific Northwest portion of the trip, however, it had been a magical trip on its own. Between the metropolitan areas of Seattle and Vancouver, the beautiful gardens of Victoria, and the natural scenery of Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Peninsua, this trip had had a little bit of everything to offer in terms of sights. Washington state and British Columbia offer up a highly diverse range of attractions in a relatively small geographic space. There should be something for just about everyone to see in this region... as long as you don't mind the rain! As always, thanks for reading about another one of my past trips.